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April 27 2000: Book Review – Slouching Towards Fargo

April 27, 2014 By: Cecilia Tan Category: Book Reviews

book cover Slouching Toward FargoSo, the other night, while sitting in the stands in the freezing cold wind of Yankee Stadium’s upper deck, my brother gave me my birthday present, lovingly wrapped in a page of the sports section of the local paper with Ken Griffey, Jr. photo large on it. (I couldn’t help but say, as I ripped the paper to shreds: “Omigod, I killed Kenny!”) It was just a coincidence that that night’s game was near my birthday and that I happened to be in NYC.

Julian, ever the thoughtful brother, bought me a copy of the Major League Rule Book, which I have already used twice, and also another baseball-related book, “Slouching Toward Fargo” by Neal Karlen. The subtitle of the book tells it all: “A Two-Year Saga of Sinners and St. Paul Saints at the Bottom of the Bush Leagues With Bill Murray, Darryl Strawberry, Dakota Sadie, and Me.”

You see, there’s this kinda zany baseball promoter named Mike Veeck, son of the late, esteemed Bill Veeck, who had once owned the St. Louis Browns, among other teams, and who was called “the greatest showman in baseball.” The younger Veeck got blackballed from the game when both Veecks were with the Chicago White Sox, and Mike arranged the infamous “Disco Demolition Night”–which resulted in a riot, torn up field, and a forfeited game. Veeck’s only route back to The Show, like the many desperate, end-of-the-line players he would hire, was through the independent bush leagues, not part of “organized baseball.”

Veeck, the promotion genius, followed the credo “Fun Is Good,” and turned the St. Paul Saints of St. Paul Minnesota into not only a winning team, but a team that sold out its 6300+ stadium for every single game for years with wacky promotions and a cast of characters including Bill Murray (of Saturday Night Live fame), a benedictine nun who gave backrubs and advice for broken hearts in the stands, a blind radio announcer, the first woman to pitch professional men’s baseball (Ila Borders), and Darryl Strawberry, who in 1996 was suffering his own first blackball from organized baseball.

We Yankee fans already know how the Strawberry saga turned, how Straw kept his hopes up while playing with the Saints, kept in shape, and then got a ticket back to the Show courtesy of George Steinbrenner, how he then grew into a team leader and helped the team win its first World Series in many years. And we also know how, in 2000, he’s back on the skids. But it was an inspiring story while it lasted.

“Slouching Toward Fargo” tells a host of other last-chance for redemption stories associated with the Saints, all of them fascinating, intriguing, and uplifting, except for one, the author’s own. Neal Karlen, you see, had been offered large wads of money by Rolling Stone magazine to follow the Saints in order to do a “hatchet” piece (an ultra-negative expose) on Bill Murray, Darryl Strawberry, and anyone else who might take a sordid fall in the backwoods of the bush league. But Karlen immediately finds himself in a moral quandary. He needs the money, and he used to thrive on that sort of work, but now he’s left the big city behind and moved back to his home in Minneapolis, and even though his heart was broken recently by a baseball-loving bitch, he really, truly, likes the St. Paul Saints and their wacky ways…

Karlen spends most of the year following the Saints and all these many worthy characters, but he is too distracted by his own angst and conflicted feelings to either report effectively or focus on the drama going on on the field. The book’s main strengths turn out to be the other characters in the book, who are well-worth reading about, and even Karlen’s failings can’t disguise what one-of-a-kind people these are. Karlen’s own journey to redemption is interesting, but not interesting enough to put up with his sloppy editing (sometimes the Madison team is the “BlackWolf” all one word, the “Black Wolf” two words, and once the “Black Wolves”) and his penchant for repeating the same anecdotes and descriptions multiple times, while seeming to leave out crucial information. I wanted to see more of the actual on field play and details of the Saints pennant race, for example, and less of the authors’ handwringing about whether he would, or would not, write the hatchet piece. God knows that, as I baseball writer, my baseball journals prove that I write about myself as much or more than I write about the game, so perhaps I should not cast stones. But I craved more BASEBALL in “Slouching Toward Fargo.”

I recommend the book to anyone, though, who wants a peek at the bush leagues and the especially wild and zany Saints. Yankee fans will be curious to see Straw it his then-lowest, along with cameos by players like Chuck Knoblauch (who was then still with the Twins). Perhaps if the book had just been a tad more focused and better edited, I would have sailed through it smoothly–but being a professional writer and editor myself, maybe I am too picky. There is much to treasure about the people and places Karlen uncovers, and any fan of the grand old game should enjoy discovering them, despite the book’s many failings.

Baseball Prospectus 2013: Like the phone book in more ways than one

March 05, 2013 By: Cecilia Tan Category: Baseball Musings, Book Reviews

So now you guys know what I was doing all winter. I was co-editing the new, more massive-than-ever Baseball Prospectus 2013 annual. The tome this year is 592 pages and contains capsule descriptions and stat projections for over 2,200 players, more than ever before.

Two thousand names is a lot to work with as an editor, but keeping the data on these players, and getting their names right, is a huge part of the editing process. Of course, some guys recently changed names, like the Player Formerly Known as Fausto Carmona, and Giancarlo Stanton… but we manage.

In the long dark winter months, as we toil in the serial comma mines, some names jump out like an opal in the coal. Names like Kevin Quackenbush, Beamer Weems, and Max Fried. As I mentioned in this interview with me at Bugs & Cranks about BP, let me tell you, at three in the morning, when your co-editor IMs you to say “Did you realize there are TWO players named Guillermo Pimentel?”–you feel Max(imally) Fried.

Then there’s that moment when I realized that Gavin Cecchini and Garin Cecchini were two different players, not a typo. They’re brothers, and I wonder what their mother was thinking. (While we’re at it, why was the mom of Jayson and Laynce Nix so fond of the letter “y”?)

I think the most oxymoronic name, of the 2,210 in the book, is that of Sonny Gray.

Are they selling the naming rights to players now, as well as stadia? Viz: Ehire Adrianza.

As an editor, the names that catch my attention the most, though, are the ones I’m absolutely certain are misspelled the first time I see them. There are a lot of them.

Top Names That You Think Must Be Misspelled: (more…)

Would you give digital books this holiday? Why not?

December 10, 2011 By: Cecilia Tan Category: Book Reviews

So, my mom and I got my Dad an iPad for Father’s Day. I know a lot more of those, as well as Amazon Kindles, will be given out this holiday season. Chances are your mom, dad, or other family member who is just getting their hands on one of these nifty devices has never read an ebook before.

Why not pre-load their virtual bookshelf with some ebooks to get them started? Suggestions for baseball titles available in ebook form are welcome in the comments below, but here are a few of my own. (more…)

June 5, 2009: A little bit about books…

June 05, 2009 By: Cecilia Tan Category: Book Reviews

The queue of books awaiting my attention just got a little longer, so I thought before they get too old, I would at least run down the list of books on my desk I am really looking forward to reading. I picked up several Red Sox related titles at the BookExpoAmerica convention, which was held in New York City last weekend. And yet no book on the Yankees! It felt like there was very little in the way of baseball books, in fact, but maybe that’s just because the GLUT of Yankees and Red Sox books is easing? Or Yankees books anyway, now that all the stadium books are out? (I suppose you could count the Selena Roberts tell-all about A-Rod to be a Yankee book… or would that be an anti-Yankee book? It is NOT on my to-read list.)
(more…)

April 13, 2009: Bash Brother, Interview with Dale Tafoya

April 13, 2009 By: Cecilia Tan Category: Baseball Musings, Book Reviews

Dale Tafoya is the author of “Bash Brothers: A Legacy Subpoenaed” — which I reviewed here on “Why I Like Baseball” back on December 14th, 2008. The book reminds readers of a lot of very significant facts about the early days of the Steroid Era which are being quickly forgotten in the onrush of debate as the controversy rages on. I interviewed Dale in the wake of this spring’s revelations about A-Rod in the belief that the Performance Enhancing Drug news is far from finished and that we will still be figuring out the full impact of this chapter of baseball history for decades to come.

Cecilia Tan, WILBB: I think a lot of fans, and certainly the owners, are still in denial about the whole steroids issue. They just want it to go away and pretend it either never happened or that at least it’s “over” now. Do you see it going away any time soon?

Dale Tafoya: Well, I think steroid use in baseball has been significantly curbed, especially since MLB began dishing out these 50-game suspensions to busted players. But it would be naive for us to think that the game is completely clean, especially since there is still no HGH testing in MLB. From a historical perspective, it’s clear that a majority of premiere players, including pitchers, who played during the late-1990s and the early part of the millennium were using some sort of performance-enhancing drug. How many careers have mysteriously tumbled since MLB started its testing program? (more…)

Breaking news… sort of…

April 09, 2009 By: Cecilia Tan Category: Book Reviews

We interrupt our regularly scheduled broadcast of Welcome Back Baseball with this announcement. My fiction writing and my baseball writing don’t often coincide, but they did recently when I wrote an erotic baseball novel for a company called Ravenous Romance. They are an ebook publisher, and … voila!

It’s not yet live on Fictionwise or the Kindle Store, but right now it can be bought directly from Ravenous as PDF, .prc (Kindle compatible), and Epub formats (compatible with lots of devices and software readers).

As the marketing pitch goes: “When Casey Branigan meets major league baseball player Tyler Hammond at a photo shoot, she finds the fun and excitement her life needs. As a manager in a big Boston design firm, Casey’s life has become lackluster – but her affair with Tyler promises to change that. Quickly caught up in the whirlwind that surrounds celebrity athletes, Casey travels all over the country to watch Tyler pitch. The sex is breathtaking and Casey loves the lifestyle fame and fortune affords. Tyler is on a winning streak, and he thinks Casey is the reason why. But Casey must decide for herself whether this is just a summer fling. Or is Casey starting a hot streak of her own?”

Buy it at Ravenous: here!

Meanwhile, I noticed my baseball-themed erotic short story, Baseball Blues, is also up for free download. So if you want a taste of things, check it out here. Yankees fans will easily be able to tell what real life player the male character is based on (and no, it is NOT Derek Jeter).

Baseball Book Recommendations

December 14, 2008 By: Cecilia Tan Category: Book Reviews

Today I’ll be reviewing four books out of the many I’ve received this year. Three I’d say would make good holiday gifts, while the last one is more of a book one should read for yourself.

The Greatest Game: The Yankees, the Red Sox, and the Playoff of ’78
by Richard Bradley

There are some classic legends and tales that can be told over and over again in many different ways, and even though we know how they end, each telling is just as captivating. The Christmas story, the sinking of the Titanic, the Odyssey… and the story of how the Yankees and Red Sox did battle on that fateful October day in 1978.

Bradley is a fluid and captivating writer who has researched all the interesting backstories and the intriguing characters (like managers Don Zimmer and Billy Martin), and retells not only the events of the game, but also how the significance of the game fit in a highly turbulent era for baseball and the country. Free agency, race issues, changes in the media, all created a unique atmosphere that only increased the place of the game in the historical context. He brings in elements of each team’s history, both in relation to each other as rivals and each as a sociological force in their home city.

Let’s not forget that it’s fun to read about the game, too. Bradley recreates key moments with great clarity. The description of Mike Torrez throwing the first pitch to Mickey Rivers comes on the 11th page of the chapter on the “Top of the First.” A sample:

Rivers was an unconventional leadoff hitter in one way: in 555 at-bats that season he had walked just 27 times. He… loved to swing at first-pitch fastballs. In the first game of a late September series the year before against the Red Sox, Rivers had lined three hits on first pitches. The next night, Red Sox pitcher Reggie Cleveland had begun the bottom of the first by nailing Rivers in the ribs. The game was in the Bronx, and as Yankee fans began hurling beer and other unpleasantries in Cleveland’s direction, Carlton Fisk had trotted to the mound to ensure that his pitcher wasn’t rattled. “Let’s see the little bastard try to hit that first pitch,” Cleveland had told Fisk.

As third baseman Jack Brohamer moved two steps in on the infield grass in case Rivers should bunt, Torrez starting with a breaking pitch, thinking that Rivers would guess fastball and swing over the pitch. But Rivers took it low, for a ball.

“The Greatest Game” is a nice-looking hardcover and would make an excellent gift for any baseball fan who wants to re-live the intensity of that late-70s era. If you got them “The Bronx is Burning” (book or DVD) last year, this is your follow-up gift. The hardcover is still available from Amazon
and if you are low on cash, there is also a paperback editionwith a less dignified cover and the more lurid subtitle of The Greatest Game: The Day that Bucky, Yaz, Reggie, Pudge, and Company Played the Most Memorable Game in Baseball’s Most Intense Rivalry.

It Takes More Than Balls: The Savvy Girls’ Guide to Understanding and Enjoying Baseball
by Deidre Silva and Jackie Koney


This is for the baseball fans on your list who are just catching fire with their enthusiasm for the game. I would say it’s mostly for the female fans, because some guys would take offense at any book which purports to tell them the stuff they were supposed to learn by osmosis magically through the Y-chromosome just from hanging out in sports bars. But I will tell you, from hanging around in those selfsame bars, that a lot of guys don’t know the difference between a forkball and a split-finger fastball, nor that the foul pole is fair territory, nor why it is that after a manager calls for an intentional walk, he usually pulls that pitcher (instead of letting the next guy do it). I know these things because I’m a relentless student of the game, but The Savvy Girls have it all spelled out for you in their fun and informative book.

(By the way, if you have a male friend you think needs a book like this and he’d be offending by the implied attack on his masculinity that a “girl’s book” might bring, I suggest Zack Hemple’s Watching Baseball Smarter, which came out around the same time, and covers much the same territory as the Savvy Girls’ book.)

The Savvy Girls cover stats, history, game strategy, and just about everything else you can think of and they make it all entertaining to read, too, with anecdotes and examples.

A sample:

Sometimes successfully managing a team means holding your tongue. In 1987, when the oft-vocal Lou Piniella was managing the Yankees… New York was playing in Los Angeles and leading the game, 1-0. Pitching the game were two starters known for their craftiness and trickery, Tommy John for the Yankees and Don Sutton for the Angels. … Television cameras showed Sutton in the Angels’ dugout taking sandpaper out of his pocket. … [Steinbrenner] was incensed to see [obvious evidence of cheating]. He called Piniella to ask what the manager intended to do about Sutton “doctoring” the ball. Referring to the fact that the Yankees were winning, Piniella told his boss he wasn’t planning on busting Sutton…. “What it means, George,” Piniella said, “is that our guy is cheating better than their guy.”

Points off, girls, for saying the game was in Los Angeles, when the Angels have played in Anaheim since 1966, but you won’t find many errors in this book. (Buy it from Amazon.)

The Spitball Knuckleball Book
by Tom E. Mahl


This is a “coffee table” book that arrived in the mail recently, from a small publisher called Trick Pitch Press. It’s a lovely piece of work, possibly a labor of love, that details the history of baseball’s two most infamous pitches and the men who have thrown them. Biographies of the pitchers are divided into “The Legals,” (Eddie Cicotte, Urban Shocker, et. al.) the “Great Illegals,” (Gaylord Perry, Don Drysdale), “The Dry Spitter–The Knucklecurve” (Burt Hooton, Freddie Fitzsimmons), The Knuckleball (Hoyt Wilhelm, Jim Bouton, Tim Wakefield…). The biographies are copiously illustrated, with many, many photos of the various pitchers’ grips. An extensive section on how to throw the trick pitches, especially the knucklecurve, is included.

Author Mahl spent four years researching the book, and by all appearances self-published the book. (Buy it here.) That alone makes it a unique gift, as it doesn’t appear to be widely available in bookstores.

The book is not perfect. It needed a professional proofreader–for example, Pedro Ramos is listed in the caption on his bio as “Padro Ramos,” but even world renowned Sports Illustrated photographer Ron Modra’s book has caption misspellings in it (“Cal Rikpin” “Raphael Palmeiro”) so one cannot really say that the quality is lower on this book than on what one finds from the big presses. They also have amateur editing mistakes, like
Ramos played for a secession of awful Washington Senators teams in the late ’50s.” A good editor would have changed that mistake from “secession” to “succession.” But again, these kinds of mistakes are actually becoming all too common in publishing as a whole, as bigger presses cut corners.

Bash Brothers: A Legacy Subpoenaed
by Dale Tafoya


This is a book that was also in need of one of those copyeditors. Tafoya tries to be as colorful a writer as his brash subjects, Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire, but one gets the impression the book was written quickly and edited even more quickly. The result is dumb copyediting mistakes like the word “fanfare” appearing as “fan fare” and plain bad word usage like in this description of the rough-and-tumble playing and living conditions faced by McGwire in Dominican Winter baseball: “The luxuries and amenities he enjoyed in American eluded him.” Elude is a synonym for escape or dodge. The amenities ran away from him? I don’t think so.

The fact that there is a weak or shoddy sentence like this on nearly every page almost caused me to give up on this book. I started reading it only to put it down again many many times. But eventually it won me over as an important addition to the canon of baseball history. I wouldn’t give this one as a gift, because I wouldn’t be able to do it without issuing an apology for the seeming lack of editing, but I will recommend it to anyone trying to come to grips with “the steroid thing” themselves.

Every fan has to make their own decision where they stand on steroids, but no matter how you feel, you should be informed. It’s amazing how much information about what went on in the 1980s and early 1990s is already seemingly forgotten by commentators and columnists on the issue. The story of Canseco’s meteoric rise as a star in Oakland, his struggles in the minors and later his run-ins with the police, McGwire arriving on his heels in Oakland and the entire “Bash Brothers” phenomenon is all fascinating reading, and more importantly, quite relevant to all that is still going on with steroids and other performance enhancing drugs in MLB today.

Tafoya has done what seems to be fairly exhaustive research and interviews, and the book presents a fairly meaty picture of a tumultuous time in baseball that is already being shoved by some into the mists of forgotten history. Some of the facts are intriguing, like the A’s were one of the first teams to employ a conditioning coach who forced the players through stretching drills; now all teams do so. Others are ironic: the A’s 1986 Media Guide featured a photo of Canseco and the headline “The Natural.” Thomas Boswell called Canseco “the most conspicuous example of a player who has made himself great with steroids” on national television in 1988–twenty years ago. Tafoya’s book will be an incredible resource for historians and writers 20 and 50 years down the road who are still trying to make sense of it all. It is, in a lot of ways, a very raw resource, only one step removed from the transcripts and clippings that formed the basis of the research. So the bad word usage and the weak sentence construction in the end come off as almost forgivable for me, the way spots and graininess are in old movie footage. It annoys me that it didn’t receive the editing polish it should have, but I’m glad to have it on my reference shelf. (Buy it from Amazon.)

Books & More Books

December 13, 2008 By: Cecilia Tan Category: Book Reviews

So, I was floating through the blogosphere and came across this list of “Top Ten Greatest Yankee Fan Books” on the Yankzology blog. And my book is, amazingly, at number one. Of course, the book is called “The 50 Greatest Yankee Games,” so maybe having “greatest” in the title skewed the results? I’m still amazed. The other 9 books on the list are pretty much ALL in the bibliography of my book, and on my shelf. (Well, OK, 7 out of the 9.)

I’ve got a stack of books I’ve been working my way through which I’ll be reviewing here ASAP, partly in case anyone wants gift-giving advice for Yankee-loving family members this Xmas.

THE GREATEST GAME: The Yankees, the Red Sox, and the Playoff of ’78, by Richard Bradley
BASH BROTHERS by Dale Tafoya
a retrospective on Yankee Stadium
and a few others will all be reviewed soon!

June 28, 2008: SABR Day Three

June 29, 2008 By: Cecilia Tan Category: Baseball Musings, Book Reviews

Here, we are, day three, the final full day of the SABR convention for the year. Tomorrow has an awards breakfast I won’t be attending (I was trying to do this convention on the cheap), and that is about it. So this will be my final report from the lovely, baseball-crazy city of Cleveland.

I may have mentioned in earlier chronicles that one of the ways I judge how baseball-crazed a part of the country is, is by counting how many baseball and softball diamonds one can see when coming in to land at the airport. Coming in to Logan, for example, you can count literally a hundred fields from just a few minutes before landing. Orient Heights alone has a dozen. (Whereas the Dallas area… not so much.) Cleveland definitely counts.

The morning’s first session was by Jeff Katz, who has just written a book on his presentation subject: how the Kansas City A’s were essentially a farm club for the Yankees. (The book is The Kansas CIty A’s and the Wrong Half of the Yankees published by Maple Street Press.) This is not ground-breaking news–it’s common knowledge and was widely lambasted in the press during the era when it was going on (1954 to 1960). But Katz’s research uncovered some really wonderfully damning evidence, including letters of Walter O’Malley bitching about the situation, and such. If you’re not familiar with the story, it goes something like this. When Connie Mack was trying to sell the financially ruined A’s, a man name Arnold Johnson wanted to buy them. At the time, he had just bought Yankee Stadium and he stadium of the Kansas City Blues,the Yankees’ farm team in KC, from Del Webb. Some AL owners opposed the team sale to Johnson, including Calvin Griffith in Washington and one or two others. Mack even organized a syndicate to try to buy the team and keep it in Philadelphia. And Charles Finley was also interested in buying the A’s.

But the fix was in, and after a few fruitless meetings, the team was sold to Johnson, who then hired Del Webb’s construction company to rebuild the Blues’ stadium for a major league team. The entire font office of the A’s consisted of former Yankees employees. In the 5 years before Johnson had bought the team, the Yankees had made 28 trades, only two with the Philadelphia A’s. In the five years after he bought the team, the Yankees made 29 trades, 16 of them with Johnson’s KC A’s. And pretty much every trade was in the Yankees’ favor. When Enos Slaughter wasn’t doing that well, they dumped him in KC. Then when he rejuvenated and became KC MVP, the Yankees gt him back.. for the waiver price. Ralph Terry was sent to KC for 2 years for some seasoning, then brought back to New York when he began to excel. (Not mentioned in the presentation, but I will here: KC Is also where Billy Martin was exiled after the Copacabana incident.)

The relationship was so blatant that when the A”s traded for Roger Maris, various Yankees weer hear to remark in the clubhouse “We got Maris, we got Maris,” and although Clete Boyer was a bonus baby for the A’s, meaning he had o stay on their roster for a minimum of two years…. they gave him to the Yankees before that. Rumor also was that he ha been signed with “Yankee money,” and indeed in later years Tom Greenwade, the famous Yankee scout who signed Mickey Mantle, would talk about Boyer being one of “his” boys on the pennant winning clubs.

What put a stop to it was Johnson’s death in 1960, after which the team was sold to Charlie Finley. A photograph that appeared in the newspaper depicted Finley standing next to a schoolbus on fire with gouts of smoke pouring from it. Painted on the side of the bus were the words “Shuttle Bus To Yankee Stadium.”

I then made a last swing through the book dealers room. I was about to leave to go find some lunch while the banquet was going on when a friend gave me his banquet ticket because he decided to spend the time in the microfilm stacks of the Cleveland Public Library.

I sat with Merrie Fidler, author of a great book on the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (The Origins and History of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League). The cheesecake was quite delicious, and Mark Armour won the Bob Davids award for service to SABR.

The keynote speaker was Ron Shapiro, who is a motivational speaker who writes business how-to books, also a lawyer, and also one of the first baseball agents when free agency came along. He had close ties to the Orioles, was Cal Ripken Jr.’s agent, as well as Minnesota’s Kirby Puckett, and many others. He told a number of anecdotes about the Orioles of the late 70s and 1980s, including a hilarious one about Len Sakata that I can’t do justice to. Then he gave a 20 minute motivational talk on how to “Dare to Prepare,” which is the theme of the book he recently wrote (on mega sale right now through Amazon: Dare to Prepare, and a copy of which was given to every attendee of the luncheon. It was odd because it felt a little like a sales pitch, and yet he wasn’t selling us the book–we all already had a copy. I conclude that he really believes what he says and like an Evangelist loves telling others and helping others. As it turned out, I found a LOT Of what he said to be right on target to the turnaround my small publishing business is having (or hopefully having). It still seemed odd to preach it to a SABR audience, but, at least it wasn’t boring.

After that came a “roundtable’ which was really just a Q&A session with Ron’s son Mark Shapiro, the GM of the Indians, and Mike Veeck (son of Bill Veeck as in Wreck and the man once known as the creator of Disco Demolition Night, bu now better known as the genius behind the St. Paul Saints and the author of a how-to-succeed book himself called Fun Is Good.)

The questions ranged far and wide. Among the tidbits I jotted down because they are of interest to me, Veeck said that 46% of his minor league team fanbase is female, and that in Charleston, SC where he has a team they have worked a lot with the local community such that their African-American attendance is aruond 9%, which is twice the national average. Shapiro admitted he is not involved at all on the marketing side of things, but he acknowledged that although they want to please purists, the flat truth of the matter is that the team needs to appeal to “people who are not white 50-70 year olds.” Which I thought was a gutsy thing to say to a group like SABR which is, well, mostly white 50-70 year olds. But people seemed to respect his honesty, if not the answer itself. One member asked how Veeck would market SABR itself, which has a desire to be not just a haven for that demographic. Veeck said “I would use a photo of [names a member who is well known to the group and is a middle aged white guy], and caption it ‘We’re not just about beautiful figures.’” Which got a huge laugh. He went on to say emphasize what’s fun about SABR and people’s mutual love of the game.

I nearly forgot the other special event of the day from this morning, was the premiere of a new movie documentary, “Baseball Discovered,” which was made by MLB Advanced Media and which followed SABR member David Block on a trip to England in search of baseball’s ancestry. John Thorn is also prominently featured in the film, and after the one hour film was shown Block, Thorn, Tom Schieber of the Hall of Fame, and Sam Marchiano (the producer of the film for MLBAM) all spoke on a panel and took questions. The documentary is really great, and while in the UK making it, publicity about their filing led a woman in Surrey to bring forth an 18th century diary she had found in an old shed which clearly has the earliest recorded written mention of baseball, in the 1755 diary of one William Bray. And by wild coincidence, there is a Bill Bray pitching in the major leagues right now who is a relative of his! Not only that, Bll Bray pitched in the game LAST NIGHT for Cincinnati, which meant he was in town! MLBAM invited him to the premiere, too, and he got up and said a few words about how awesome it was to be connected to the history of the game that way. Really neat.

There is no DVD on sale yet. It will son be available on iTunes, will stream from mlb.com (www.mlb.com/baseballdiscovered/) and soon will be distributed (still being worked out).

I made sure not to miss David W. Smith’s presentation on the Importance of Strike One (art 2). He started this topic last year and continued it. Using Retrosheet pitch by pitch data, he analyzed over 3.4 million plate appearances and over 13 million pitches. Among the things he found: batters foul off a lot more pitches now than they did in previous eras, and that the path one takes to get the first strike or to 1-1 matters. Batters who swung and missed on the first pitch or the second pitch weer likely to do badly in he at bat even if they worked the count full later. He described perfectly the “first pitch dilemma.” The pitcher is suppose to “get ahead in the count” by throwing a strike, but if the batter puts the first ball in play, his chances of getting a hit are much higher than on later pitches in the at bat. So he has to throw a strike, but not give him anything good to hit. Hmm.

Then Pete Palmer and Dick Cramer repeated their 35 year old study on clutch hitting, but with using he more and better data now available, to see if Bill James’ assertion that perhaps clutch hitting does exist, we merely haven’t been able to isolate it from the statistical “fog” of randomness around it. The new conclusion for Palmer and Cramer was the same: clutch hitting probably doesn’t exist and that the fog is still really darn thick. David Ortiz really did have two extraordinary years in 2005 and 2006 though.

My brain was full at that point, so I did not see the last two research presentations, and went off to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Museum.

As it turns out, the museum is having a “Baseball Rocks!” exhibit, which was really neat and interesting, combining stuff from their own collection with memorabilia from the Baseball Heritage Museum, for an exhibit that could easily ave fit right in at the Cooperstown National Baseball Hall of Fame. It was basically a lot of juxtaposition of popular music artifacts like sheet music and 78 and 45 records with baseball memorabilia and text describing the importance of each thing. Like sheet music from the 1858 “Base Ball Polka”–the earliest known published baseball song–written by J. R. Blodgett, who played with the Niagara Base Ball Club of Buffalo, NY. Or the 1935 song, by Eleanor Gehrig and Fred Fisher, “I Can’t Get To First Base With You,” the cover of which showed Lou (smoking a cigarette and looking very Hollywood) with an inset of Eleanor and both of their signatures printed on. They also connected the emergence of black entertainers into the fledgling rock and roll in popular music with Jackie Robinson breaking the color line. Apparently Denny McLain played the organ at a professional level (he apparently had to do organ practice before baseball) and that George Thorogood played semi-pro ball before making it as a musician.

I finished off the night with friends and a beer at the Bier Markt, a place with a fantastically large selection of belgian beers, and also delicious pomme frite (fries) with flavored mayo belgian style to go with. Yum.

So, signing off from another great SABR Convention. Next summer will be in downtown Washington DC!

June 27, 2008: SABR Day Two, Part 2

June 28, 2008 By: Cecilia Tan Category: Baseball Musings, Book Reviews

Back from the ballpark where the Indians pulled off a nice 6-0 shutout of their in-state rival Reds, C.C. Sabathia pitched 8 innings, 4 hits, 11 strikeouts, 2 walks. His only rough inning was the first when with 2 men on Grady Sizemore saved Sabathia’s sizable bacon by making a sickl leaping over-the-shoulder catch that had him land almost Spiderman-like with his spikes buried in the padded wall. After that, he cruised. And then the game was toppe off my a rather impressive fireworks show. Perhaps the single show I’ve seen with the highest explosions per second ratio. It was very nice, but a constant barrage of color and noise.

Now, when I left off today, in the mile of the day, I was running to try to catch a presentation on the “Mitchell 89.” That is, a study of the 89 players named in the Mitchell report and looking at whether taking performance enhancing drugs actually enhanced their performance. The study was undertaken by four researchers, Pat Kilgo, Jeff Switchenko, Brian Schmotzer, and Paul Weiss.

Among the fascinating facts their study seemed to uncover is the fact that players taking steroids appeared to enhance their offensive statistics by a factor of 12%, but if you cut Barry Bonds from the study, the effect is lessened to 7 percent. Still significant, but he was a big skew factor. Also, they found that the players reported to have taken HGH did NOT show any improvement in performance–in fact some measures were slightly negative. (This doesn’t mean HGH is harmful to performance, more likely that the guys taking it were doing it to try to recover from injury, and the effect of the injury is seen in the numbers.)

Andy Andres, a SABR member and a college professor who teaches both physiology and baseball statistics at Tufts, Harvard, and B.U. has posited from his studies that steroids ought to give between a 5% and 10% increase in offensive statistics, and that HGH ought not to, and interestingly this seems to bear it out. Further study is needed, but it was an interesting analysis.

Earlier, I was describing the beautiful Cleveland Public Library, was I not? They have an outstanding baseball photograph collection, which they ad a lot of on display to coincide with the SABR convention, and also some rare books and a collection of scrapbooks and memorabilia — great stuff. In the “Treasure Room” they had a bunch of the things on display that could actually be touched and looked through with care, including Henry Chadwick’s 1878 Our Boys Base Ball Rules for 1878 book, and The “Bull” Durham Baseball Guide 1910, which listed itself as “Published Annually by the Baseball Publishing Company, 2 Park Square, Boston.” They also had a selection of early novels mentioning baseball, including reference to Jane Austen’s 1798 book Northanger Abbey, which I JUST referenced in the Baseball Early Bird newsletter last week!

Not related to baseball, but equally fascinating to me were the exhibits in the library of Miniature Books (define as books from half inch by half inch in size up to 2″ x “3). The first well known one was made in 1475, just 20 year after Gutenberg’s Bible, the Officiam Beatae Virginis Maria. In WWI, a Scottish publisher produced a one-inch Koran that was issued to Muslim Allied soldiers in a metal locket case that included a magnifying glass. The other exhibit that caught me was one on Conlangs, or Constructed Languages, including not only Esperanto, but Elvish and Klingon. Folks I know tangentially, like Suzette Haden Elgin, whose Laadan language and “Linguistics and Science Fiction” newsletter are very familiar to me, fascinating to see. And fascinating to be reminded of the highly brainy and very geeky world I come from in science fiction/fantasy that is totally parallel to the one I know through SABR.

Next, a historical presentation by a SABR member from Japan, Yoichi Nagata. He presented on the Tokyo Giants’ north American tour of 1935, in which they barnstormed all over the western USA, plus a little Mexico and Canada. With pro baseball set to take off in Japan, the Giants (who were given that nickname by Lefty O’Doul, one f their major supporters in the USA), wanted to come to acquire American baseball skills.

Nagata was drawn to researching this tour because all records of the tour that were in Japan were lost during World War II. He had to used 102 local newspapers from all over North America to recreate all he results of the tour. He was able to recover 82 box scores and in the end, they had 104 games, only 31 losses and one tie, playing 74 different teams on the 118 day tour.

Among the facts I fond surprising, were that the Giants tam included one Russian-born player whose parents had fled the Bolsheviks to Japan when he was 3 years old, and one American citizen, a Nisei born in Hawaii.

During the tour they played 16 games against Nisei teams, going 14-2.

They also exhibited certain behaviors that charmed American fans, such as bowing to the umpires and forming a player “huddle” between innings. They also wore Chinese number characters on their backs. All three of these things, though, weer not usual for Japanese baseball–all were suggested by Lefty O’Doul as marketing ploys, and photographs featuring bowing, the huddle, and the numbers were sent out in press kits to all the newspapers.

In the end, the tour was not a financial success, but the team did acquire American baseball skills, so was considered an overall success, and thus was professional baseball launched in Japan the following season.

I’m amazed at the significance of this event culturally, and that Nagata was forced to come to the US to study it because of the devastation of the war.

The final research presentation of the day was Vince Gennaro’s talk on Free Agent Salaries. If you have not read Gennaro’s book Diamond Dollars, I recommend it. He explains in that book, among other things, why it is so key for the Yankees and Red Sox to spend as much on players as they do, and other factors that affect financial decisions in the game.

Here e described coming up with a model for predicting a player’s fee agent worth, adjusted for premiums of position (pitchers get paid more, middle infielders less), injury history (more durable player got a premium, injury-prone ones a discount), age, player quality, marquee value, and other factors. His study was only looking at the 2007 free agent class, but he is working on an expanded version that will cover 5 years and about 600 free agents to see if it holds up. By his model, Kaz Matsui is overpaid (valued around $3M, paid around $5M) while Cliff Floyd is getting $3M but is valued around $4.9M. He also noted that three guys who did not get jobs this season still carried value: Mike Piazza around 3.5 million, and interestingly, Barry Bonds $12.2 million. Barry says he’s been blacklisted. Has he?

Edit: Gennaro won the award for best presentation at the conference!

The final thing I saw before going off to the ballpark was Rick Wilber read from his new book published by McFarland & Company, entitled My Father’s Game. Rick is the son of major leaguer Del Wilber, but I know him as a science fiction writer. He and I and Eric Van (who runs the Readercon convention and works for the Red Sox) are about the only three people I know who crossover between the two sub-cultures.

Rick read some moving passages from his book, which deals with his perfect childhood as the son of a ballplayer, and his not-so-perfect adulthood where he was his father’s caregiver in the last stage of his life. I bought the book, and also Dorothy Seymour Mills’ book, A Woman’s Work: Writing Baseball History with Harold Seymour. Dorothy was Harold’s wife, and his major collaborator, though in the early years of his fame as a pioneer in baseball research, her contributions were not acknowledged. In those days, women were not allowed in the press box. You get the idea. Thankfully, Dorothy is well-recognized now!

That’s it for today. It’s one in the morning, and the first session I want to see tomorrow is at 9am, so I had better get to sleep.

Sorry again about all the typos. I’m writing this on the television web access thing in my room and it’s very hard to edit (or even see).

April 26 2000: Book Review – Ball Four

April 26, 2000 By: Cecilia Tan Category: Book Reviews

book cover of ball Four
What do you mean you haven’t read Ball Four, the original baseball “tell-all” book by Jim Bouton?

Okay, okay, I hadn’t read it either, until recently. I was a kid when it came out, young enough that I still had to be held by the hand by my Dad as we walked through Yankee Stadium. I don’t even think my brother was even born yet when the book was first published. But he’s the one who found a dog-eared old paperback in the basement of my parents’ house, and appropriated it to read.

He brought it with him to Spring Training to pass on to me. I started reading it while we were on our trip to Florida, but I was too tried most nights to read more than a few pages before we conked out.

After returning to the frozen north (today’s April 26th as I write this and we had SNOW in Boston today… not kidding), I zipped through it in a matter of days. At first, all I could say was: Wow.

This is a book that has it all. An observant and funny narrator (Bouton), a fascinating milieu (major league baseball), and a suspenseful plot (as Bouton tries to make a comeback to the bigs after ruining his arm by turning to the knuckleball). And the New York Yankees.

Now you would think as a Yankee fan, that I would find the book sacrilegious. Bouton reams Ralph Houk and the Yankee management for ruining his health with bad coaching, exposes Mickey Mantle as a mean-hearted drunk, and harbors fantasies of beating his former team in a pennant matchup. But it’s yet more proof that the Yankees are the sun around which the baseball universe rotates, or has since the days of Ruth, anyway.

I found every page of the book to be enjoyable. I suppose the book was a serious shock when it first came out. For example, Bouton details major league player hijinks like the regular and constant practice of trying to see up women’s dresses (“beaver hunting”), rampant drug use/abuse, groupie sex, and cruel pranks played on rookies. For those fans who had believed baseball players to be squeaky clean model citizens, the book must have hit like a mud pie in the face.

Then again, look at how many people get their righteous indignation up whenever a player doesn’t live up to that image today. John Rocker is a racist ignoramus? Say it ain’t so! Yeah, we have to try to ‘rehabilitate’ Rocker, help him change and grow, but are we really shocked that he’s in ML baseball the first place? We oughtn’t be. Sticking with the Braves now, how about Chipper Jones’ adultery, admitted in late 1998? Lotta people just don’t want to hear about it. Fans have stuck by him mostly by trying to ignore it, while restaurant chain Wendy’s revoked their endorsement deal with him. When the question of Bernie Williams’ off-field relationships with the ladies was raised in the Yankee Fan Forum at yankees.com, many fans expressed sadness and anger at the gossip and rumors, saying they wish they had never even looked into the topic. They didn’t want to hear it at all.

Yes, we do want our heroes heroic, moral, righteous, and clean. The same could be said of the soldiers and generals who fight in a war, or of the leaders we respect. But this is the year 2000. Knowing of their excesses in love, drugs, or life haven’t really diminished the legends of Elvis, John F. Kennedy, or many other figures. Why should baseball players be any different? Babe Ruth was not a squeaky clean fella.

One of the true charms of “Ball Four” is that Bouton exposes it all from the inside, from the perspective of a player who isn’t out to smear the game, but who wants to tell it like it is. Readers are treated to Bouton’s insights into the strategy of the game, the experience of pitching, the camaraderie of a team, the tough realities of the life on the road, being traded, and negotiating contracts before free agency, a strong players union, or other “modern” innovations players have today. It’s not all dirty jokes and complaining. Bouton has a biting wit but also real affection for the people around him.

Yankee fans will be tickled to see cameos in the book by the rookie Lou Piniella, Joe Torre, Mel Stottlemyre, and others who cross Bouton’s path as he recounts the season from trying to make the team in spring training camp with the expansion Seattle Pilots, through the long season. Many other greats also appear.

In 1990, a 20th anniversary edition of the book was published, and is still in print, plus old copies of the original bestselling book can be had anywhere from $3 to $25 at used bookstores (check out www.bibliofind.com to mail order it through the site from a used bookstore at the price you prefer…). There was also a second edition, called “Ball Four, Plus Ball Five: 1970-1980″ but I haven’t read that. Bouton’s adventures did continue beyond the end of the book, though, including some interesting factoids:

  • In 1970, Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn has the nerve to ask Bouton to sign a statement saying “Ball Four” is a lie. Bouton declines.
  • In 1976, Ball Four is made into a tv show. It lasts five episodes. Said Bouton; “We wanted Ball Four, the TV show, to be like M.A.S.H., only in a locker room. Instead it turned out more like Gilligan’s Island in baseball suits.”
  • 1978, Bouton makes a comeback with the Altanta Braves! Also invents “Big League Chew” with teammate Rob Nelson, so they can have something to chew besides tobacco. This is especially funny given how many guys you see chewing gum in dugouts today…
  • 1998, Bouton appears at the NY Yankees Old Timers Game, after a Father’s Day piece in the New York Times by his son Michael asks the Yanks to forgive him. Bouton is warmly received by the 50,000+ crowd.

Anyway, you won’t be sorry you read this book. Even if you’re one of those people who likes to keep illusions, just remember it was all a long time ago, and keep telling yourself it’s not like that now. But I wouldn’t miss this extremely funny, often touching, story of the human beings in baseball and the inside of the game. After twenty years, it’s still worth reading.

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